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Reform Under Roosevelt During the Progressive Era

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Reform Under Roosevelt

Vice president Theodore Roosevelt, a Spanish-American War hero and former governor of New York, became the nation’s youngest president when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Roosevelt was fearless, outspoken, charismatic, and determined to govern as he saw fit, rather than answering to any special interests. Roosevelt opposed the class distinctions and the economic situation that kept the lower classes down; he believed that such distinctions had no place in a democratic society. He referred to his domestic goals as “a square deal, no less and no more” for all citizens. Roosevelt believed that big business had a role to play in society, but he also knew that business owners would put their profits above all other considerations. Therefore, he was determined to pass laws that would force compliance with certain standards, ensuring fair hours, wages, and working conditions.

Economic Reforms

Roosevelt had a chance to put his Square Deal program into action in 1902, when the United Mine Workers went on strike demanding recognition of their union and higher wages. Roosevelt offered to appoint a commission of arbitrators who would hear both sides and settle the dispute. Neither the workers nor the owners liked the sound of this. Owners were afraid of Roosevelt because he had clearly stated that he believed in regulating big business. Workers distrusted him because no previous president had ever supported them in a dispute. How- ever, after the strike had dragged on for several months, both sides agreed to the president’s proposal. The commission ruled that the owners must raise wages and shorten working hours, but that they did not have to recognize or bargain with the union. This was the first time that any president had ever achieved a result that protected workers and the public, at least to some extent. For the moment, both sides expressed satisfaction with the commission’s ruling.

The U.S. government sued the Northern Securities Company, a railroad monopoly that controlled shipping between Chicago and the Northwest. The courts sided with the government, claiming that the Northern Securities Company had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. So many more lawsuits followed that Roosevelt was nicknamed a “trustbuster.” Roosevelt also sought to strengthen the government’s power to regulate the railroads. The 1903 Elkins Act and the 1906 Hepburn Act gave the Interstate Commerce Commission its first real authority to enforce rules. These new ICC powers were later extended by Roosevelt’s successor William Howard Taft.

Roosevelt acknowledged the growing public concern about the food and drug industry. Like all others, this industry was unregulated at the time Roosevelt took office. There were no ingredient labels on packaged foods or medicines. Con artists could call themselves doctors, mix up any concoction they wanted, and sell it as a cure-all for aches and pains. Dangerous drugs such as opium were available over the counter. And no one but the workers knew what went on in plants where foods were processed and packaged. The Jungle and the press opened readers’ eyes to the unsanitary conditions that prevailed in such plants, and proved that regulation of the industry was necessary for the sake of public health and welfare.

In 1906, Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act into law. It required that all food and beverage containers, including those for medicines, be clearly labeled with the ingredients of their contents. It banned the manufacture, sale, or transportation across state lines of harmful or poisonous substances.

The following table shows the key elements in Roosevelt’s program of reform.

US History Progressive Era Roosevelt Program of Reform Act

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